Review: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

This review contains spoilers.

Harry-Potter-and-the-Deathly-HallowsI have now procrastinated writing this review literally to the last possible moment, which gives you some idea of just how enthusiastic I am about the whole idea.

Deathly Hallows is, of course, the last of the Harry Potter Main Series (that was almost an astrophysics joke, but I misremembered the chart on the wall of my school Physics classroom, godsdammit), and it sees Our Heroes tramping through various bits of the English countryside, occasionally going on random and often pointless side quests and sniping at each other because of the baleful influence of the One Ring Horcrux they are carrying around with them.

Then, without any visible ramping up of tension, there is an Exciting Battle! with Shocking Revelations!

Then it is The End.

This is almost frighteningly similar to the structure of Twilight, as it happens (500 pages of Edward Cullen’s face, plus random excursions that achieve precisely nothing, followed by Exciting Vampire Battle with Exciting Vampire Revelations and Egregious Self-Sacrifice!). There is probably an essay of sorts to be written here, but I do not, alas, have the intellectual energy to write it now.

I think there is scope for an extremely charitable reading of the Harry Potter series which says that the books are effectively a work of successive deconstruction: moving from the traditional plot of Philosopher’s Stone, full of the formal conceits of (childish) fairy tales, seeing the world in fairly simple shades of black and white and maybe a very little grey, through to the non-plot of Deathly Hallows, confusing and pointless and aimless as life can seem when you are eighteen and about to start adulting. Growing with its readers, the series breaks down the certainties of childhood, the institutions that are supposed to protect you (Hogwarts under Ministry control becomes a dictatorship in Order of the Phoenix; the goblins of Gringotts bank try to kill Our Heroes in Deathly Hallows), the people who you idolise (James tortures Snape, Lupin is a flake, Sirius has overweening pride).

I think some version of this progression is almost certainly what Rowling is going for. I’ve outlined some of my problems with this approach in my reviews of some of the other books; in shortish form, they are:

  1. Generic. A lot of Western fantasy works by repurposing traditional plots and tropes to talk about new concerns: it’s something that fantasy as a genre is particularly good at. I’m not saying that it’s impossible to write good, immersive, interesting fantasy without using or subverting those traditional plots; I am saying that stripping away those plot structures, deliberately or otherwise, can leave a text feeling self-interested, introverted, bloated on its own backstory – irrelevant because uninterested in its literary parentage. As this text does.

  2. Character. Rowling’s strength is not in writing character. Despite her frequent protestations to the contrary, Harry is not a wonderful perfect saviour possessed of unusual capacity for love; he is a quite ordinary teenage douchebag whose pimply face I would quite like to punch. Ron is irrelevant, Ginny a Mary Sue, and Hermione, although the best of the bunch, is still fairly one-note. You need good characters if you aren’t going to have a decent plot, or what’s the point?

  3. Commitment to the motion. The series just doesn’t carry through on its deconstructive project. The much-reviled epilogue to Deathly Hallows fails to show us the long and difficult labour of destroying old structures of oppression to ensure that the likes of Voldemort can’t rise again; it skips over all that uncertainty, those shades of grey, to a conventional and consolatory ending in which everyone gets married and “all was well”. Even Tolkien, the king of the traditional plot, did it better with his Grey Havens scene. And the denouement of the book, of course, reverts to the oldest and most consolatory Christian myth of all: the story of the Resurrection, in which the sinless dies for everyone and rises again – “and all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well”. (That’s Julian of Norwich.) Some deconstruction. Rowling never managed to convince me as to why Harry was so special; why his sacrifice meant so much more than the sacrifices of those countless unnamed people who died for their families and friends both when Voldemort was at the height of his powers and at the Battle of Hogwarts. It’s a thoroughly conventional, and thoroughly black-and-white, ending for a series that has spent much of its energies over the past four books trying to break things down into shades of grey.

This has been, then, my Harry Potter re-read.

I am not doing it again.

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